A few years ago I decided to take my last year of studies abroad. At that point I had really never travelled alone and never taken any huge risks in life. Life was good as it was but I had begun to feel the need to do something new, to go somewhere and make new experiences by myself. To go somewhere I didn’t know anyone and push myself out of my comfort zone. The question was, where should I go?
My university had an exchange program with several other schools in both Europe and the United States. As my passion for photography was already starting to take control of my life, I decided to pursue my education in a new location. My only requirement; The town I would move to must be close to great landscape photography locations. After much debating, I finally landed in Spain. More precisely, Santander – a coastal town in northern Spain.
After living 12 months (double the original plan of six) in Santander, I’ve become a huge fan of photographing the rugged coast this region has to offer. I’ve gone back several times in the last few years and I’ve already planned my next visits.
This region offers great opportunities for landscape photographers and still has many locations that aren’t overly photographed. You can find pristine sandy beaches, rugged cliffs, mountain peaks and calm lakes.
What You Need to Know When Travelling Northern Spain
Before I share my favorite locations there are a few things I think it’s important to know before visiting this area and making your stay more memorable.
Most people I’ve encountered in Spain speak limited to no English. This could be a challenge if you, like me, don’t speak Spanish. On the other hand, this can also be extremely fun and if you’re not afraid of trying to speak a foreign language (or use your hands a lot) you’ll quickly learn how great the locals are. It’s always entertaining to have a bilingual conversation.
I’ve noticed that very few of the locals actually try to speak English with you, as most of them might not know much either. Still, there’s no problem getting your hotel room, but it might be more challenging if you’re taking a taxi or asking for directions (even though an offline mobile translator app always helps).
People are very friendly and even though there might be a language barrier they are happy to help you.
Stay in Villages
If you’re visiting the area with the intent to do photography, consider getting a room in a smaller village rather than the big towns.
Normally, these are a bit closer to the locations that you’re likely to visit. But for me, I really enjoy spending some time walking around and exploring these small villages. Also, as in most of this region, the people are very friendly and might even guide you to some less known locations that are definitely worth to visit for a sunset.
Villages can also be very photogenic and spending a sunrise or sunset photographing them might pay off. Just do some research first to see if the village has vantage points or areas that seem good to photograph.
Visit in Springtime
Unlike the south of Spain, weather in this region isn’t as warm and calm throughout the year. Winter, spring and fall is mostly wet and chilly while summer is warm with a blue sky.
Visiting during the month of May will give the best possibility for good photography conditions. This is when the weather starts to become more bearable and clouds are good, but you can also see both storms and clear nights. Summertime is, as I said, warm and mostly cloudless, so it’s more rare to get dramatic photography conditions during that time of year.
Mentioning only a handful of locations from this region is nearly impossible, as it seems like there’s always something photogenic around every corner. However, just saying that it’s photogenic everywhere isn’t really helpful when you’re planning a trip, so here are my top nine places to photograph in northern Spain.
Top 9 Places to Photograph in Northern Spain
Playa de Silencio, Asturias
Like many other beaches and coastal locations in northern Spain, the road to Playa de Silencio isn’t particularly good and the first time you visit you might think that you’ve taken a wrong turn as you drive through a narrow street in a tiny village.
This is one of my absolute favorite locations to photograph along the coast and it has a lot to offer if you choose to walk around the area. The two most iconic shots of this beach are from the ridge itself (be careful when walking there) or from a vantage point close to the parking.
Castro de las Gaviotas, Asturias
If it’s one thing the north of Spain doesn’t lack, it’s big rocks and cliffs by the sea. The main attraction of Castro de las Gaviotas is the huge arch that will make you think you are in Iceland. Still, there are some other spots around the area such as a hidden beach below the parking area.
Los Urros, Cantabria
It’s become a tradition for me to take the first sunset and sunrise of my stay at Los Urros (or La Arnia which is a part of the same beach). Located less than 20 minutes driving from Santander it’s a popular place for photographers, tourists and locals to visit. Still, it’s one of the most unique places you’ll find along this coast.
If you choose to visit this location for sunset I suggest you arrive a couple hours earlier to walk around and get to know the different opportunities you have. It’s also possible to make your way down from the cliffs but be careful as it’s steep with loose rocks plus waves can be brutal.
Los Lagos, Asturias
If you want a break from the dramatic coastline you should spend the day visiting Picos de Europa. Los Lagos is a popular lake in the mountains and it’s not without a reason. Both the drive up and the lake itself is nothing but impressive.
The steep drive up the mountains is full of vantage points and the chances are you’ll end up stopping at most of these to grab some images, or just enjoy the scenery.
Note that during summer you’re not able to drive up. Buses run all day but the last one leaves 30 minutes before sunset.
At the base of the steep drive up to Los Lagos you’ll find one of the most beautiful churches in northern Spain. The location is prime and I’m still fascinated by how hard it must have been to build this village.
Playa de Campiecho, Asturias
As I mentioned earlier it’s very hard to select only a handful of beautiful places to photograph in Asturias, Cantabria and Bizkaia. Yet again I’m going to say that this is one of my favorite beaches to photograph in this region. But I mean it!
The first time I visited this sea cave my jaw literally dropped. It seemed like nature had just put everything together and created a perfect place to photograph. Inside the cave there’s even a small puddle to add some extra depth in the image.
Be aware, though, that the tide rises quickly at this location and it’s not possible to get out there (or back) when the tide is low. We nearly got stuck the first time we visited but luckily the waves weren’t that big so we were able to wade through the sharp rocks and back to the beach. So be sure that you know the tides before you visit here.
Playa de Barrika, Bizkaia
As with Playa de Campiecho, if you plan to visit Playa de Barrika be sure that you’ve researched the tides! If you arrive during high tide the beach is nothing special, in fact, it’s kind of boring. During low tide, however, the “dragon tails” are revealed. Visiting during rising tide is ideal as you then also get the water rushing between the rocks.
The beach is only 25 minutes away from Bilbao so you’re able to go sightseeing and photographing the same evening.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Bizkaia
The most unique location along the coast of northern Spain is the isle of Gaztelugatxe. On top of the island is a hermitage that dates back to the 10th century.
Walking up the 241 steps to the hermitage will reward you with a great view, but, the best photography spots is from below.
Faro de Cabo Mayor, Cantabria
Faro de Cabo Mayor is a lighthouse in the outskirts of Santander that I went back to countless times during my stay in Spain. Since it’s only a short drive from downtown it’s an easy place to visit.
Since the sun rises just beyond the lighthouse this is a perfect location for sunrise without having to travel far if you choose to stay in Santander.
So, as you can see, I am very passionate about the endless photography opportunities in Northern Spain. While most people think of Barcelona and Madrid, the vast country of Spain offers so much more to experience, especially for ocean-loving adventurers and photographers.
Christian Hoiberg is a Norwegian landscape photographer and the creator of Capture Landscapes, a website devoted to helping artists improve your landscape photography. His images can be found on his website or Instagram.